History: Celebrating Eastern Kentucky’s gay rights pioneer Lige Clarke

by Emma Johansen
they/them/she/her
contact@queerkentucky.com

This February marks the 80th birthday of an icon in Kentucky LGBTQ history: Lige Clarke!

Lige Clarke was born Elijah Haydn “Lige” Clarke on February 22nd, 1942, right outside the town of Hindman, in Knott County, Eastern Kentucky. He graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, then later served in the U.S. army, and began his activism within explicitly gay journalism in 1965. Lige was beloved by his family, and was consistently described as a free thinker, a dreamer, and an activist.

As part of the U.S. army, Clarke worked at the Pentagon in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the aftermath of the Lavender Scare – a national campaign started by Senator John McCarthy to expel suspected gay people, communists, and socialists out of governmental positions – Clarke had joined a small group of Mattachine Society members in Washington D.C. The Mattachine Society was one of the first nationwide groups for LGBTQ people that began during the “homophile” movement of the 1950s, and chapters were formed across the country. The Washington D.C. chapter, in particular, would stage the first openly gay picket in front of the White House on April 17th, 1965 (four years before the Stonewall Uprising). Clarke allegedly hand-painted nine of the ten signs displayed at the protest, and his activism was only just beginning.

Lige Clarke on Cocoa Beach, Florida, 1974.

Clarke met his partner, Jack Nichols, in Washington D. C. in 1964 and, together, they formed new chapters of the Mattachine Society across the region by establishing the East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO). Nichols, Clarke, and their network of organizers would also stage pickets and protests in front of the State Department before moving to New York City in 1968. There, Clarke and Nichols wrote for the “New York Notes” column for the monthly Los Angeles Advocate (later shortened to the Advocate). The couple also created “The Homosexual Citizen” column in the newly established, sexually explicit magazine, Screw.

Clarke and Nichols signed on this column under “Lige and Jack,” without surnames, as this was their first publication in a non-gay magazine, but the column ran until 1973.

In 1969, Clarke and Nichols founded the United States’ first gay weekly publication, aptly titled GAY. Though GAY wasn’t associated with any particular organization, it reached a large fanbase and had astounding commercial success. At the magazine’s peak in the early 1970s, more people bought GAY than the Advocate nationwide.

Lige Clarke’s sophomore yearbook photo, Eastern Kentucky University, 1962.

Clarke and Nichols would later publish a memoir about their lives together, titled I Have More Fun with You than Anybody, in 1972. When he wasn’t writing, Lige taught Hatha Yoga in Manhattan and read the poetry of Walt Whitman. Despite traveling all around the world, Clarke was always welcome back home. His sister, Shelbianna Rhein, described Clarke as “everyone’s favorite;” he was especially beloved by his mother, his nieces, and his nephews. Shelbi also stated, in an interview with Gay Today alongside Jack Nichols, that their upbringing in Appalachia was a massive influence on Clarke’s creative, free spirit: “Despite the lack of museums, dance studios, and other advantages children on the ‘outside’ of the mountains enjoyed, we grew up in a nurturing environment with a rich culture of mountain ballads, art, simple values, and people who cared about each other.” Dr. Cate Fosl, in the Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative, published for the National Park Service in 2016, argues that his roots in Eastern Kentucky, and the economic decline he witnessed there, further “fueled his outrage at any injustice.”

Lige Clarke and Jack Nichols posing for the cover of their second book together, “Roommates Can’t Always Be Lovers; an Intimate Guide to Male-Male Relationships,” 1974.

Lige Clarke and Jack Nichols posing for the cover of their second book together, “Roommates Can’t Always Be Lovers; an Intimate Guide to Male-Male Relationships,” 1974.

Mere days after the Stonewall Uprisings, Lige Clark published a call to arms for the emerging gay liberation movement within the pages of GAY on July 8th, 1969. As a member of the homophile movement and Mattachine Society, Clarke hoped “that ‘Gay Power’ will not become a call for separation, but for sexual integration, and that the young activists will read, study, and make themselves acquainted with all of the facts that will help them carry the sexual revolt triumphantly into the councils of the U.S. government, into the anti-homosexual churches, into the offices of anti-homosexual psychiatrists, into the city government, and into the state legislatures which make our manner of love-making a crime.”

While on a trip to Mexico with two other gay men, Lige Clarke was murdered under mysterious circumstances on February 11th, 1975, at the age of 32. Shelbi describes the aftermath of her brother’s murder as a solemn, but warm union between the two families in Lige’s life: “The townspeople were lovingly hospitable to Lige’s gay friends who traveled to Hindman for his funeral, served as pallbearers, and carried his coffin up the hill to our woodland family cemetery; they welcomed his friends into their homes, provided them with home-cooked meals, and invited them to visit often. People in Hindman still remember Lige and speak of him with admiration and love.” His grave overlooks Highway 550 on the edge of Hindman’s city limits, and Clarke eternally rests overlooking the mountains he loved.

When asked about her brother’s legacy, Shelbi Rhein responded: “Whether dealing with sexuality or any other facets of one’s life, Lige would encourage people to be – to do – to love – to give and receive freely without fear of what others think. He would encourage us to live fully each day; and, he would say to us, with his broad smile, ‘Remember who you are.’”

References

Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. United Kingdom: Harrington Park Press, 2002.

Fosl, Catherine, et al. “Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative.” Report for the Kentucky LGBT Heritage Initiative, prepared by the University of Louisville Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research 2016.

Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America. United States: Prairie Avenue Productions and Windy City Media Group, 2012.

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